Last year I did an mid-year analysis of the top 50 selling songs of 2010 thus far. I found that there was an increased use of the word “I” (and its derivatives) in relation to “you”. In fact, the variations of “I” were used nearly twice as much as the variations of “you”. I didn’t really have any historical data to back up whether or not this was an increasing trend or this was somewhat normal. A couple of pop music people I talked to suggested that this was the relative standard for the past few years.
A new report by Dr. Nathan DeWall and other psychologists suggest that this is actually a new trend in pop music. The New York Times just reported on the study which covered pop music from 1980 to 2007. The study found that in the last decade, there is a definite marked increase in narcissism in popular music. The words “I” and “me” are popping up more frequently, while “you” and “us” are in decline. The report also highlights an increase in the usage of words of hostility.
While they didn’t cover popular music from 2008 until 2010, my study from last year certainly confirms that narcissism is indeed alive and well in pop music. Why this is happening may be a combination of what these psychologists are finding alongside the technological trends. Two of the study’s co-authors published The Narcissism Epidemic two years ago and have certainly found this subject to be a growing trend in college age youth even before they saw it in pop music. A study conducted largely in the same time period points to this regular increase via a standardized test.
There is actually debate amongst these psychologists as to whether people are indeed becoming more narcissistic or if they are just more willing to say so. For you, the reader looking to make a hit song, that’s not even a concern. The facts are there pointing to hit songs being more about “me” than it is about “you”. Certainly the societal changes causing youth to act this way is a factor. With music, though, the environment in which one listens is also a component. In offices, people don’t listen to the same thing over one loudspeaker. They listen to individual music over headphones. Kids are not listening to the radio station that mom put on, they’re listening to an iPod in the back seat. More time spent in front of individual computers is leading to less group listening.
What one listens to and responds to generally is a byproduct of how they listen. If they are listening to music by themselves, songs about someone else or about a group of people sound odd. If you’re in isolation and are singing by yourself, songs about “me” are fitting. The decrease in these group listening experiences are responsible for songs in the 2nd or 3rd person.
Also worth noting is the increase in “partying” songs, which is a group activity. I’ll make an assumption that parties now make up a greater percentage of group listening experiences than they had before. Since the song that needs to fit this experience also needs to be successful in isolation to be profitable, they must carefully craft the song to fit both needs. Last year’s hit, “Tik Tok” by Ke$ha, does that rather succinctly. The first verse starts out with eight mentions of “I” variations. It then follows with four mentions of “Our” which, while acknowledging a group, is also possessive and certainly narcissistic in attitude against the broader song. However, once you reach the chorus, there’s only one “I” and one “we” mention in the entire refrain. The chorus is a more general statement about partying that feels strong in a group moment without fully defining the group for when the listener is alone. Overall, while the song appears to be about a group party, it’s really just about the singer allowing the song to exist in both worlds. Final counts:
“I” variations – 30
“We” variations – 16
“you” variations – 12
The data is clearly showing even with psychologists now. Successful music is generally narcissistic. If you’re going to be selfish enough to want to financially succeed in your music career, I guess you need to carry that over to the way you craft your songs.